Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of data-driven reports on “hidden patterns” that define our cityscape.
Northern Liberties and Grays Ferry are two seemingly divergent neighborhoods. In the last decade, one has become a synonymous with gentrification and redevelopment and the other with post-industrial struggle and decline. Yet, in many ways these two neighborhoods have more in common than one would think. At approximately two miles from City Hall each, they reside on opposite corners of the city’s commercial core, both bounded by major highways, train trestles, and a disconnected waterfront.
Demographically, both neighborhoods have a relatively transient population: the highly-mobile urban professional in the Northern Liberties and the housing subsidy dependent working class in Grays Ferry.
Using data from the 2013 American Community Survey, a cluster of Census Block Groups were selected as representative of each neighborhood’s core.
With an almost equal number of housing units (1,632 in core Grays Ferry v. 1,526 in core Northern Liberties), the two neighborhoods have an almost equal proportion of renters (67.00 percent in Grays Ferry v. 69.2 percent in Northern Liberties).
Analyzing the contrast between the similar rental statistics and different socioeconomic realities, a trend in different ownership profiles among the neighborhoods’ landlords begins to appear.
The following map shows rentals across the city, with a location for every active rental license.
With the rental map in hand, the search for each property’s landlord begins.
We traced the properties in both neighborhoods, including the landlord’s home and/or office address, according to the distance between this address and the addresses of their rental properties. This gives us a sense of who owns the rental properties in each neighborhood: local neighborhood residents or investors from other areas of the city or region or beyond.
We then followed the contact addresses for every rental property in all of the selected census tracts to determine the driving distance between the landlord’s registered home base and his/her properties in Grays Ferry and Northern Liberties.
By clustering the landlords by distance, the following parameters divided the distances into easily-recognizable groups.
In the Neighborhood: Distance of 1 mile or less from the property.
Properties that can be easily accessed on foot. For Grays Ferry, this means walking from 26th St. to 29th, or from Girard to Poplar in Northern Liberties.
Adjacent Neighborhood: Distance of 1.01 miles to 2.5 miles from the property.
Access by foot is still a possibility, but more efficiently via bike or public transit. For Grays Ferry, this means properties in Southwest Center City, Girard Estates, and Melrose. For Northern Liberties, this means Fishtown, Old City, and Fairmount.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia: Distance of 2.51 miles to 7.5 miles from the property. Properties that are easily accessible by public transit, with cars being an increasingly useful option. In the Grays Ferry search, this pointed to Northeast Philadelphia and Drexel Hill, which, although not technically in the city, is still very much an urban locale. In Northern Liberties, Mt. Airy was a popular neighborhood within this range.
Inner Suburb: Distance of 7.51 to 17.5 miles from the property.
This is the ‘regional rail’ distance–accessible enough by public transit, but far enough that traveling by car is just as efficient, if not more so. For both searches, this often involved properties in Lower Merion, Cheltenham, and Jenkintown.
Outer Suburb: Distance of 17.51 to 40 miles from the property.
At this distance, almost any travel necessitates the use of a car. The suburbs here are usually large-lot properties separated by sizable tracts of open space. Many of Grays Ferry’s landlords in this set were either in Gloucester or Burlington Counties, while more opaquely-named LLCs tended to have addresses near or inside Bucks County.
Outside the Region: Distance of 40+ miles.
Regularly visiting properties from this far would be difficult and probably occurs more sporadically than in any other category (though it’s likely out of town owners employ property managers). Many addresses in the NYC Metro area were found, though there were also entries from Baltimore, Austin, and even as far as Seattle.
Taking each neighborhood’s landlords and grouping them by distance, the neighborhoods have two very-different looking profiles.
Grays Ferry’s landlords are almost entirely from the Philadelphia Metro region, with the proportion of landlords increasing with greater distance from the neighborhood, peaking in the Outer Suburbs.
Northern Liberties’ local landlords are much more likely to live inside the neighborhood, with relatively small number living the suburbs. However, a significant percentage of the landlords do not live in the region at all, with many of them bearing addresses in the NYC Metro area.
There were many instances where a collection of properties were registered to an address at one suburban shopping center, and conversely, there were a number of married landlords with one property each. Many lived at their properties, most likely renting out just a room or two.
Interestingly, in both cases, landlord names tracked to the ethnicity of the neighborhoods’ 19th and 20th century makeup. Landlord names in Grays Ferry were suggestive of the neighborhood’s Irish and Italian ethnic history. In Northern Liberties, Central and Eastern European names surfaced.
A number of properties were found to be owned by limited liability companies, some named after the streets their properties sat on. Others hinted at a sense of landlord humor. Two adjacent properties in Grays Ferry are registered identically, though assigned separately, to BirdEgg LLC and BirdBreak LLC.
Historically, Grays Ferry was a working class Irish American neighborhood that also included somewhat poorer sections of African Americans. A notable degree of racial tension has culminated there over the last few decades (and previously, going back to the 19th century). A minor brawl in 1997 spiraled into intense racialized conflict. Many of the neighborhood’s white residents began to leave–often for affordable New Jersey suburbs beyond Cherry Hill and Haddonfield.
Some working class African American families took the opportunity to invest in purchasing a home in the increasingly vacated neighborhood. Fleeing white homeowners also sold their houses to holding companies, some with murky legal standing. Others found themselves unable to profitably sell their home at all. The majority of both opted to make their properties available for renters receiving the FHA’s Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. Many in the area who were displace by the demolition and rebuilding of the 64-year-old Tasker Homes were forced to move into the privately-owned housing nearby using their vouchers.
The result is a class of white landlords, heavily concentrated in South Jersey’s distant middle class suburbs, renting properties to low income residents with little means to financially or geographically move away from their former housing project.
With Northern Liberties, population growth in the 1990s greatly accelerated development after 2000 as the neighborhood followed the classic patterns of gentrification. On queue, creative-class individuals established themselves first, either by renting for next to nothing or often buying several bargain-rate properties at once. As the neighborhood began to see an influx of newer, more affluent residents, many of the original “pioneers” settled into a single property, renting the others that are all within a few, walkable blocks. (This process in Northern Liberties is detailed in Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s book Song of the City and in co-editor Peter Woodall’s 2012 article “The Remarkably Long Journey to Bart,” HERE.) As the area’s profitably increased, houses and bigger industrial properties were purchased by investors from the region’s affluent, inner suburbs, notably the Main Line, which explains the blip seen for Northern Liberties’ 7.5-17.5 mile bar. As the neighborhood’s reputation expanded outside of the Greater Philadelphia market, buyers from outside the region–most noticeably clustered in affluent North Jersey and Greater New York–began to purchase properties to rent, often selecting to raze homes for new construction, an option unavailable to the previous owners.
As conclusions go, it appears that landlord profiles can vary greatly depending on a neighborhood’s desirability. To what extent will this continue to shape the future of Grays Ferry and Northern Liberties is a question of causality–does a neighborhood’s desirability change its ownership, or does its ownership change its desirability? Historical events can very well shape where landlords reside and what their motivations are in renting. However, to suggest that landlords operate solely at the whims of history is to negate the very active role that they can have in determining the quality, condition, and visual appeal of their properties, an idea that can be extended to all of the city’s neighborhoods.